The Howard League for Penal Reform

Elmley prison: How low our expectations have sunk

The prisons inspectorate published a report on Elmley prison today. Not a high-profile jail, but nevertheless important because it illustrates the dreadful state of prisons across the country and how low our expectations have sunk.

The press release accompanying today’s report praises the prison for improving. Indeed it has improved since 2014, when it was just awful.

“This inspection revealed very serious concerns,” the 2014 report reads. “At the heart of the prison’s problems was a very restricted and unpredictable regime.

“Association, exercise and domestic periods were cancelled at short notice every day. We witnessed many examples of prisoners being turned away from education and work because prison officers were not available for supervision.

“About 15 per cent of the population, or almost 200 men, were unemployed and they routinely spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells.”

Now apparently things have improved because, whilst men are still locked in their dirty cells that are infested with bed bugs, they at least have a regular regime so they know how long they are going to spend in their cells, most of the time. They still do not get to work, education or exercise when they should.

The prison is using punishments to control the establishment. Almost 10,000 additional days of imprisonment were imposed in 2014 as a response to misbehaviour. Strip searching is excessive. Staff use force, including batons, and place men in what are euphemistically called ‘special cells’.

Staff shortages in the prison are patched over by shipping officers down from other prisons on detached duty for short periods. This is destabilising for staff, inmates and for the institution.

I welcome the improvements and support managers, who are obviously working extremely hard to make a difference. But, this prison is not serving the public well.

It comes to a pretty pass when inspectors give a thumbs-up to a prison that is just a little better than all the other ones that are absolutely awful.

Come on Mr Gove, jam tomorrow is not good enough, we need something doing today.

April 19, 2016 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, Work in prisons

Bronzefield, Downview and Holloway: The maths simply do not add up

The inspection report published today on Bronzefield prison shows that a prison with empty beds and full staffing can deliver a decent regime for women, and the same would be true for men. As we know, most men’s prisons are grossly overcrowded and understaffed so they are not providing a decent regime. Future plans for Bronzefield and other women’s prisons puts it in jeopardy of replicating the poor conditions experienced by men.

Bronzefield in Surrey holds just over 500 women and has about 20 spare beds. The plan to close Holloway and shift some of the women into Bronzefield and the rest to Downview will result in those two prisons being seriously overcrowded and under-resourced.

Downview was a women’s prison, then was re-roled to take men and additional security measures were added to the buildings, including razor wire. It has been empty for a couple of years and the officers and governors have been dispersed to other prisons to cover for shocking staff shortages. It is designated to hold 355 men or women prisoners.

As Holloway currently holds 525 women the maths simply do not add up. There are 150 too many women prisoners. The plan appears to be to cram this number of women into Bronzefield and Downview making them unsafely overcrowded.

There is another option. Reduce the number of women prisoners.

Taking a look at the women in Bronzefield, a third are on remand and almost three-quarters of them will not get a prison sentence. Most of them simply should not be in prison in the first place. Measures to stop magistrates from remanding women to prison would stem the flow and help to solve the problem.

A further third of the women in the prison are serving short sentences, and they too could be managed in the community. Magistrates should be prevented from using short prison sentences which are known to do more harm than good. More than 80 per cent of women sentenced to prison have not committed a violent offence.

Hundreds of women released from Bronzefield each year face homelessness and the inspection report drew attention to the prison chaplaincy handing out tents and sleeping bags. We should use the opportunity provided by the closure of Holloway to stop sending so many women to prison in the first place, thereby saving millions of pounds that could instead be invested in community support and housing.

April 13, 2016 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Housing, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prisons, Rehabilitation, Sentencing, Women in custody, Women in the penal system

Ending mass incarceration

The last session of the conference we hosted last week in Oxford discussed how to end mass incarceration. The great prison experiment in the United States that started in the 1970s and saw the number of men, women and children in various forms of incarceration explode to more than 1.5 million by 2010 is, finally, coming to an end. There are lessons we can learn here about ending our obsession with jailing people.

While we do not have mass incarceration on the scale of the US, we have experienced a similar pattern of growth from the 1970s when there was a prison population of around 42,000 in England and Wales. By 2015 this had risen pretty steadily to almost 86,000 men, women and children behind bars.

In the US the cost of mass incarceration has sucked funding away from schools, transport, health care and social justice. The criminal justice system became the social welfare agency of choice for many states. As such, it has been a spectacular failure.

The reluctance of political leaders in the UK to address the relentless increase in incarceration means we cannot put an end to it. The first step to ending an addiction is admitting you have it.

The Americans have learned that they have to put an end to building more prisons because they simply cannot afford it and it feeds the crime problem rather than solving it. States that have significantly reduced prison use have also seen drops in crime. There is no simple correlation between prison numbers and crime rates, and it is naïve to think that prison numbers can be reduced by reducing crime and offending. Indeed, the opposite is the case: reoffending will go down if we reduce the unnecessary use of prison.

Mass incarceration is reducing in the US for a complex range of reasons, one being the influence of well-funded independent think tanks and voluntary groups. Give the Howard League a few million and we could do the same here!

March 22, 2016 · Frances Crook · One Comment
Posted in: Howard League, Prisons

Doncaster prison: What Michael Gove should do next

The inspection report on Doncaster prison reveals once again the disaster that is the prison system. The relatively newly built jail is simply not safe for the men, some only teenagers, and it is not safe for staff.

Prisons have become hotbeds of festering violence and misery. They are feeding the crime problem, not solving it.

A few days ago the Howard League published a comprehensive plan for easing the release of long term prisoners more efficiently, more fairly and more safely.

The problem remains as to the inflow of men and women sent to prison by magistrates for short sentences.

Doncaster prison receives 90 new prisoners each week, a churn of almost 10 per cent of its population. At any one time about 16 per cent have been sentenced to a short prison term, but they account for a much greater percentage of its throughput every year. Daily figures of those who are only held for a few weeks distort and hide the reality of the use of short prison sentences by magistrates.

The problem then is one of gross prison overcrowding and its resulting violence that spills back into the community. Action needs to be taken to ease the pressure today, as the Howard League’s plan for long-termers will take time to impact.

In the past governments have used executive release to get people out early, but that can be problematic if people are not given support to ease back into the community. No, something different needs to be done.

I suggest the government considers radical action.

The Lord Chancellor should temporarily remove the power of magistrates to sentence to prison. They can only send a person to prison for under six months and there is overwhelming evidence and general agreement that this is counter-productive, expensive and causes mayhem inside prisons.

Magistrates have a panoply of community sentences at their disposal. They could use those.

Not sending beggars, petty thieves and people who are generally just very annoying to prison would mean they could get other sanctions but wouldn’t cost the taxpayer millions in imprisonment costs or clog up sinking prisons like Doncaster.

The penal system is an evidence-free zone in many ways. If we stopped the use of short prison sentences for six months we could monitor the impact and then decide whether to make it permanent.

The Lord Chancellor is a radical reformer. Let’s see if he has the courage to do in justice what he did in education.

March 9, 2016 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Overcrowding, Prison officers, Prisons, Privatisation, Sentencing

The very basic stuff

The Prime Minister made a seminal speech about prison reform this week and I welcome his admission that prisons are in a shocking state. But before we start getting too grand about reform, we need to look at the very basic stuff that needs changing.

You can’t get people work-ready or help them live independent and crime-free lives if they spend years in a prison system that infantalises them and keeps them away from clean clothes and washing.

Grown men in prison are given a clothing allocation each week that should include some track suit bottoms and tops, but doesn’t always. So many have to wear the same ill-fitting track suit bottoms, that have been worn by countless others, for days on end. I have never heard or seen of pyjamas being provided, so men wear their boxers or the track suit bottoms to sleep in. Then they wear them all day. Then they wear them all night. The next day. The next night. Often only getting a change once a week and sometimes every couple of weeks.

If men are lucky and have family outside who can send in extra clothing and they are permitted to wear it having achieved the higher level on the incentives scheme, they may be able to keep a bit cleaner.

Lack of staff means that men are commonly getting a shower every two or three days.

Breakfast packs are eaten at night.

All this means that adult men are unshowered, wearing smelly underwear and floppy tracksuits that they have worn all day and all night for several days and have not had breakfast. They slope off to education classes or a work detail, if they are lucky, in this state.

I would never permit a member of staff to turn up to work unwashed, in filthy clothes they had slept in and having not eaten since the day before. They would not be prepared for work.

There was a lot of fuss in the media a couple of weeks ago about mums wearing their pyjamas whilst taking their children to school. At least they had (probably) only worn them for one night. Think how revolting, unhygienic and disrespectful it is for men who have no choice but to slouch in sordid clothing unwashed for their entire time in prison.

Prisons need to get this sorted before we can start thinking about ‘reform prisons’.

February 12, 2016 · Frances Crook · 4 Comments
Posted in: Government policy, Inside prisons, Prisons

Medway secure training centre

Anyone who saw the violence, casual abuse and hatred inflicted on children inside Medway secure training centre that was revealed by Panorama would be shocked. Even I was horrified, after years of hearing about high use of violence by staff to control children, broken bones and distress. The question now is, what are we going to do?

There are three secure training centres, all currently run by G4S although Rainsbrook will transfer to MTCNovo later this year. The justice secretary has appointed Charlie Taylor to take a look at the youth justice system including the way we lock children up. I am assuming he will find that prisons that hold the majority of boys are dreadful places, and, he will have to make recommendations to change the STCs following the public outcry over abuse and the consequent police investigation.

My worry is that the STCs will continue to exist when they are rotten to the core. The very concept is flawed.

They are the epitome of political expediency and ego. Politicians always want to be seen to do something, even if it is the wrong thing. This is what happened when STCs were invented by Kenneth Clarke in response to a media scare.

The buildings are not suitable for children. They are too big to care for highly vulnerable children. They are closed and secretive, as we have seen with the only filming had to be secret. They incarcerate children who do not need security but need care and support. They detain many children who are remanded but will not get a custodial sentence.  Many of the children who are sentenced are detained only for short periods.

It is not a question of who runs them, the legal framework that incarcerates the children is wrong. Swapping providers will not solve the problem.

The reason I am writing this is because I hear that that is exactly what is being considered. Charities have always resisted running penal institutions as they appreciate that punishment is not a charitable objective. I hear that a Spanish based charity that runs a string of child jails is bidding to take over the STCs here.

I have seen these places in Spain, and I was not impressed. To begin with, the Spanish government is not transparent when it comes to the number of children in custody. The centres I saw involved the deprivation of liberty but the Spanish government claims (see page 71 of the most recent Council of Europe figures) that there are 0 children held in penal institutions. In fact, it seems that hundreds, possibly thousands of children are held in custody in Spain.

The custody in question may be branded as ‘educational’ but the children held in these centres were compelled to be there. Dress it up as you will, that means their liberty is being deprived and these are penal institutions. The educational facilities I did see were not particularly developed. There were very few books on show, for example, and no provision for art, music or science. They are mixed gender facilities and I did manage to extract an admission from one of the jails that at least two girls had got pregnant. They didn’t seem to know what had happened to the babies or the girls.

There was a healthier atmosphere between the staff and the children than in the STCs. This was aided by a regime which sees many of the children released during the day. The Spanish system locks some of the children up all the time but allows some of them to go to school during the day, or attend outdoor activities. But this raises an important question. If these children were safe enough to spend all day in school with other children, then why remove them from their families and punish them with incarceration in the first place? In fact, I was left concerned that the ‘semi-open’ regime was potentially sucking in Spanish children to custody when they did not need to be there. I come back to my point that the Spanish government claims no children are in penal custody at all.

It would be seductive to pretend that a new way of locking up children will be better.

The answer must lie in closing the prisons. No child should be in a prison. We should close the STCs, they are proven to harm children. For the very few children who are so damaged and damaging that close custody is needed, we already have small secure units that have a track record of success. We don’t need to import failing systems from other countries, we have our own way of caring for children that works, let’s use it.

February 2, 2016 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Children and young people, Government policy

Howard League’s legal work

This is the second in what will be regular bulletins about the Howard League’s legal work to help children and young adults in custody.

We received calls on our confidential legal advice line relating to 80 individual young people in December, fewer than normal because of the holidays. The most common issues were prison punishments and adjudications, resettlement, complaints, segregation, poor treatment and transfers.

Fifteen of the calls related to children and 41 were about young adults. People sometimes call the Howard League about adults in custody or adult prisoners call, but we only deal with young people so we normally recommend a more suitable service.  Just over half of the calls related to people from BME backgrounds.

We received requests for help from four young adults who had been held in segregation in excess of 42 days (six weeks, a long time for a teenager to be locked in a cell alone with nothing to do.) Three of them had been segregated following a large fight on the prison wing.  All three denied any involvement in the fight and were not present when it took place. They were informed by the prison that there was intelligence to indicate that they had been involved. They were not charged with a breach of prison rules or referred to the police.

We assisted the young people with complaints, contacted NOMS at a senior level to inform them of our concerns, and inquired as to whether or not the obligatory 42 day review had taken place. It is very worrying that despite the Supreme Court’s concerns last summer about the irreversible damage that can be caused after just 15 days of isolation, the new system allows for segregation well beyond that point. The legal team will continue to challenge this.

We have a high number of calls requesting representation for children and young adults referred by prison governors to district judges for disciplinary matters. The overwhelming majority of these are from Aylesbury prison. It is not a coincidence that Aylesbury inflicted the highest number of additional days of imprisonment of any prison in the country last year – 9,428 days or nearly 26 years, despite it being only a medium sized prison holding teenagers and young adults.

We receive calls for help with children and young people who are recalled to prison. We assisted a 15 year old boy who was recalled for breach of curfew; his licence conditions included a six month curfew which he complied with. Following his being the victim of an unprovoked attack outside his care home, resulting in his being hospitalised, he was put back on curfew for another three months at the same address. He was so concerned for his safety at the care home that he would only return at night when he thought he had to; despite this, he was recalled for breaching the curfew.

The Howard League advice line is the only confidential legal service available to children and young adults in custody for help about their incarceration. We are very busy.

January 19, 2016 · Frances Crook · No Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Howard League

Punishment system out of control

Over 2,000 years of additional imprisonment were imposed over the past five years on people who misbehaved in prison.

Prisons operate disciplinary hearing called adjudications where allegations of rule breaking are dealt with. The Howard League published research last year based on just one year’s figures which showed that in 2014 over 160,000 extra days were imposed. Andy Slaughter MP, shadow justice minister, asked a Parliamentary Question that elicited the figures for the last five years. This showed that a total of 768,518 days had been imposed from 2010 to 2014.

This is a punishment system out of control, responding to a prison estate that is out of control.

The statistics show that individual prisons under particular stress resort to excessive use of disciplinary procedures.

Aylesbury prison that holds teenagers and young adults had 25,379 days, almost 70 years, imposed.

Pentonville prison had over 20,801 extra days imposed, or 57 years.

Private prisons are extremely punitive.

Despite G4S Oakwood only being fully operational for 2013 and 2014 it had 8,937 days imposed in those two years.

G4S run Parc prison in Wales imposed 16,800 extra days.

Sodexo took over Northumberland prison and in three years 14,291 days were imposed.

Until 2002 it was governors who had the power to impose additional days of imprisonment on prisoners deemed to have misbehaved and on average around 80,000 extra days were awarded. A legal battle resulted in this power being removed and a new system of external adjudication was established with district judges hearing cases. Since then, the number of days imposed has exploded.

District judges are passing sentence on prisoners for misbehaving with no accountability for the outcome or consequences, nor are they taking into account the circumstances of the prison which is often grossly overcrowded and under-staffed resulting in disgusting conditions and prisoners in distress.

The system needs to change.

January 14, 2016 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Inside prisons, Prisons, Sentencing

Teenagers in prison at Christmas

A senior Howard League lawyer was in Aylesbury prison yesterday helping teenagers who had been naughty deal with the punishment system.

A bit of background first. Aylesbury prison holds young men who have committed serious offences and are facing long periods in prison. This should be a settled prison but sadly it isn’t. The prison suffered a staff cut of more than a third, and this destabilised the establishment so much that Ministers in desperation reversed the decision and allowed prisons to re-recruit. In order to deal with the lack of staff in Aylesbury, staff were shipped in from other prisons for short stints.

The prison has been on a restricted regime for a couple of years. This means that the teenage boys are locked up most of the time. The consequence is a volatile prison fetid with resentment and violence.

The prison authorities respond with excessive punishments. Aylesbury used the adjudication process to impose 9,428 days of extra prison time on its boys last year, despite there only being 418 of them. That is nearly 26 years’ extra prison time.

Howard League lawyers represent boys who are facing excessive punishments for behaviour that in the community would not concern the justice system.

One boy had an exemplary record, working and obeying the rules. When his mum got ill and went into hospital he wanted to call her. Remember, mothers cannot call into their sons in prison; no families can call in. Prisoners are allowed to call only specified phone numbers agreed in advance on the expensive pay phones on the landings. So he got hold of an illicit mobile to talk to his mum in hospital. He was caught and charged with three crimes:  possession of a phone, a charger and a battery. He was taken off his job which meant he could not earn any money and would not be able to phone his mum even when she got home. He was put onto a punitive basic regime that meant he hardly ever got out of his cell. He was then taken through the adjudication process and the district judge imposed extra days of imprisonment.

Yesterday, the district judge imposed 46 extra days of imprisonment on boys for misbehaving on just our cases. There were more than 30 adjudications before the independent adjudicator so it is likely that many, many more days were awarded.

This is a cycle of abuse. The prison is caging boys; they misbehave; they get more punishment. They also cut and harm themselves. And some young men in prisons get so desperate they take their own lives.

Over Christmas prisons are going to be very sad.

December 23, 2015 · Frances Crook · 3 Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Inside prisons, Prison officers, Prisons

Solitary confinement at Thameside

There was an article last week in the Guardian lauding the Serco run prison, Thameside. It only showed what Thameside wanted you to see. Howard League lawyers have been representing young men, including some teenagers, held in the prison for several years. The in-depth knowledge about how prisoners we work with there are treated does not paint a very happy story. In fact, we uncovered an unlawful punishment regime set up by Serco that meant prisoners were being placed in solitary confinement for weeks on end.

The prison management was concerned about high levels of violence and so made up a ‘violence reduction policy’ that included placing young men into segregation without any of the normal safeguards.

The Howard League lawyers successfully challenged the unlawful policy at Thameside and got it stopped.

Luke (not his real name) was a vulnerable 18 year old young person with complex needs and vulnerabilities. He spent 35 days in segregation as a consequence of the ‘violence reduction policy’. Whilst he was in segregation he remained locked up in his cell for more than 23 hours each day. Staff would look at him through the peep hole in his cell door and note down what he was doing. This shocking record illustrates surveillance without compassion. It is a verbatim account of what staff wrote:

00.00     Appears asleep

01.00     Appears asleep

02.00     Appears to be asleep

03.00     Appears to be asleep

04.00     Appears to be asleep

05.00     Appears to be asleep

06.00     Appears to be asleep

07.00     Appears to be asleep

08.00     Asleep breathing noted

08.55     Appears asleep

09.00     No issues

09.45     Laying in bed appears to be asleep

10.20     DM rounds – No issues raised

10.40     Used CMS no issues

11.40     Lunch given

12.20     Watching TV

13.20     Laying in bed appears asleep

14.20     Laying in bed no issues

15.05     Laying in bed no issues

16.00     Laying in bed no issues

17.00     Dinner given

18.00     Sat on desk

19.00     Walking in cell

20.00     Sat on bed

21.00     Seated by window ledge

22.00     Laying in bed

23.00     Laying in bed

The policy authorised prisoners who were suspected of being involved in two acts of violence or bullying to be placed in the segregation unit for a mandatory minimum period of 28 days, with the opportunity of further segregating the prisoner beyond 28 days at seven days intervals. The policy also made provision for prisoners who were returned from the segregation unit to normal location to be placed on basic level on the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) scheme for a mandatory minimum period of 28 days.

There are normally stringent procedural safeguards to protect prisoners who are segregated in recognition of the increased risk to the mental health of prisoners in prolonged isolation. This is why, prisoners can only be segregated for specific reasons and in accordance with the prison rules. The policy at Thameside operated outside these rules.

Prison guidance is also clear that prisoners who are downgraded to basic level on the IEP scheme must have their downgraded status reviewed within seven days of being downgraded.

The Howard League made a formal complaint to the Serco run prison about Luke’s treatment and the lawfulness of the policy, but did not receive any assurance that the policy would be withdrawn.

It was only when the Howard League issued judicial review proceedings challenging the lawfulness of the policy that the prison and the Secretary of State for Justice agreed it was unlawful and the private prison withdrew it.

The Howard League welcomes the access to prisons afforded to journalists recently. It is right that the media should see and report what happens in prisons. But, there is a responsibility to see all sides of prison life and to present a balanced picture based on the lived experiences of prisoners and staff.

December 21, 2015 · Frances Crook · 2 Comments
Posted in: Children and young people, Howard League, Prisons